In 'Hitchcock', the marriage gives shape to the man
Posted November 22, 2012
LOS ANGELES —There's a Hitchcockian glaze of fear creeping across Scarlett Johansson's face.
It's mid-May, just after 10 o'clock in the morning, as Johansson, in a short blond wig, walks onto the dimly lit, faintly menacing set of Hitchcock, her tiny waist accentuated by the vintage cut of her blue dress. Just as Janet Leigh did in Psycho, the classic beauty ducks into a waiting eggshell-blue '55 Ford Falcon and places her hands carefully on the wheel at 10 and 2.
"Are my hands in a good place?" she calls out to her director.
For now, the great Alfred Hitchcock, brought to life 32 years after his death by Anthony Hopkins under a set of prosthetic jowls and a portly bodysuit, is silent as he settles into a chair next to a vintage camera.
"It will be good for your close-up," says British director Sacha Gervasi.
A movie within a movie, Hitchcock (in select theaters today) is an introspective look at the director's turbulent marriage to his wife and co-conspirator, Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren), as he fought for what would be his hallmark thriller, Psycho.
After Gervasi calls "action," it's Hitchcock's set. Hopkins stares down from his perch, and a grip in a '50s jumpsuit begins to pump the classic car up and down as Johansson drives against a rear projection of a desert road.
"You think they can't tell, but they can. They know. You can feel that noose tighten around that breakable little neck," Hopkins intones ominously to his Janet Leigh, now Psycho's Marion Crane, on the run with embezzled cash for her boyfriend, Sam Loomis. Two modern cameras silently circle the scene. "I mean, you could return the money secretly, but what would that prove? It's too late. Poor Marion Crane, always so right, so respected, so prim and so proper, perfect. Untouchable, unsullied Miss Crane. Daddy's little angel," he snarls.
Johansson's eyes are now wide and glassy, and Hopkins is at full venom, ranting, "Messy, sticky little lunchtime trysts with that oh-so-handsome failure, Mr. Samuel Loomis. They'll gossip and they'll whisper. Even your boss, the straitlaced, hatchet-faced Mr. Lowery, why, even he can smell the rancid pungent scent of sex all over you," he shouts.
A sound crashes in the background and Hopkins stops. "Get it fixed," Hopkins orders, with a Hitchcockian assurance. Johansson remains frozen as an assistant leans into the cab to dab shine from her flaxen hairline.
Later, by phone, Hopkins chuckles devilishly at mention of the scene's script, which he amended slightly.
"I thought, well it needs more. I need more of the salaciousness of Hitchcock. And it would be a chance to show his inner aggressiveness to Janet Leigh. So I wrote out the whole speech more, I elaborated and thought if I can get through it fast, they can't edit it."
Rather than a how-to guide to Hitchcock, Gervasi's take on the Master of Suspense, based on Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, focuses on the costs of creative genius, using Psycho as a backdrop.
"I wasn't particularly interested in making a movie about the making of a movie at all," says Gervasi, who outbid 26 directors for the job despite a lack of feature experience (his last film was the critically acclaimed documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil). "I was fascinated with these characters and this relationship and this enduring creative collaboration that went on for nearly 40 years between these incredible people."
Hopkins, a longtime fan of Hitchcock's legacy, dodged the idea of a straight biopic for eight years. When Gervasi was tapped, "I said to myself, 'Everybody's got to start somewhere,' " says Hopkins, who appears opposite Mirren for the first time. "I said, 'I'd love to do it.' "
Risk runs in the Hitchcock bloodstream. At 60, coming off of the success of North by Northwest, Hitchcock, afraid of aging out of his provocateur status, became fixated on Robert Bloch's slasher novel, Psycho, based on the twisted true story of Ed Gein,whose murderous tendencies were exacerbated by an obsession with his dead mother.
But in 1959, Hollywood balked at bankrolling the level of gore an adaptation would require. "Everyone thought it was a piece of trash and that it was beneath him," Gervasi says.
Resolute, Hitchcock decided to bankroll the $800,000 production himself and appealed to Alma to mortgage their Bel-Air home.
"Rather than the woman behind the man, I think she was a woman shoulder to shoulder with a man. I think within the relationship, within the marriage, she was on equal footing," says Mirren, who pulls Alma out of the shadows as Hitchock's revolving screenwriter, editor and trusted critic. (It was she who spotted Leigh blink in an early cut of Psycho while supposedly dead on the bathroom floor.)
"He knew that she was such a brilliant editor," says Hopkins, whose character is similarly bolstered by his bulletproof assistant, Peggy (Toni Collette). "She wanted (composer Bernard Herrmann) to put music in the shower scene. Hitchcock was vehement. 'No.' "
And as celebrity marriages go, Hopkins can dryly attest that 50 years later, the spouses of the famous remain ignored. "It's awful. I've been in places with my wife and I say, 'This is my wife, Stella.' Hopkins mimics the dismissal. " 'Hi, Stella. So, Tony — ' And I say, 'This is my wife. Stella.' 'Oh yeah, yeah. Hi Stella.' Because they're such snobs."
'Just do it'
On Hitchcock's set, some of the most enduring images from Psycho are scatteredacross several clustered soundstages: Norman Bates' (played by James D'Arcy) chilling basement, the air musty and the floor streaked with fake blood; the Bates Motel's thinly walled office, the peephole drilled into place. And the infamous Psycho shower, plumbing exposed, smaller than one would expect, standing starkly alone in the middle of an empty soundstage.
Johansson had only a day to replicate one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history (Hitchcock took seven days with Leigh). "I watched the scene a lot in preparation for it and just kind of pulled it apart piece by piece," Johansson says.
The pressure, she allows, was huge. "You just have to dive headfirst into things like that, because of course the whole job I just know, 'Ugh I do not want to do that scene,' " she laughs. "The best thing to do is just do it."
The day after Johansson's car scene, Mirren arrives fresh from London and orders a coffee, sending an additional cup to her director.
"Helen Mirren just sent me a coffee," says Gervasi, the novelty of working with Hollywood royalty still fresh.
Between takes, Mirren steals a gummi candy from a crew member. "Get those away from me," Mirren orders cheekily. Her short scene with Johansson is shot outside Hitchcock's office, and her character thanks Leigh for her rare breed of professionalism. "It hasn't gone unnoticed," Mirren tells her.
In the film, Hitchcock's obsession over his icy Hollywood blondes is a major point of contention in his marriage, but it's an assertion both Mirren and Hopkins play down in interviews. "I think he just had a woman in mind who was accessible," Hopkins says.
"All directors are voyeurs," Mirren adds. "It's a voyeuristic job. And I think Alfred was as voyeuristic as the rest of them."
But not all of his actresses benefited from his fixation. Jessica Biel plays the cautionary tale as Vera Miles, whose career was launched by The Wrong Man. Set to headline 1958's Vertigo, Miles dropped out shortly before production because she was pregnant.
"He wanted to make her this next Grace Kelly, as he puts it," Biel says on set as her light brown wig is carefully glued on by a team of two in the makeup trailer. "She wasn't interested in that" — and Hitchcock never forgave her.
Psychology through the lens
The movie never deviates far from Hitchcock's gift for pinpointing human fear coupled with a delicious sense of irony. (Or from his notorious gluttony. Hopkins' character gleefully gulps red wine in the bath and feasts on foie gras flown in from overseas.)
"Hitchcock loved to shock, and Tony embraced that and did exactly the same thing," Gervasi says. "On new people he'd come up, you'd get a tap on the shoulder and he'd go, 'Good evening' and people would jump."
"I think what drew me to Hitchcock mostly is that he's a great psychologist," Hopkins says. "He understood the nature of human consciousness like no other director. That's why he could make an audience feel completely ill at ease by a certain shot or a certain angle." (Gervasi challenges Hitchcock fans to spot eight of the director's famous shots replicated in the film.)
Hitchcock opens in time for awards season, and Oscarologist Tom O'Neil predicts Hopkins and Mirren are "virtual shoo-ins" for nominations. "The reason this movie resonates so powerfully with Oscar voters is because it dramatizes the central conflict of their lives, which is the frustration of getting a movie made," he says. "Watching the great 'Hitch' have to go through that to make one of the greatest movies ever is fascinating to watch."
Despite producing more than 50 feature films and garnering five Oscar nominations, Hitchcock never took home Hollywood's top prize. In 1979 he was honored with an American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award and gave his speech from his seat, with his wife of 54 years by his side.
"I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration," Hitchcock said. "First of the four is a film editor. The second is a scriptwriter. The third is the mother of my daughter, Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as has ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville."
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